Countries don't usually charge protesters with piracy for trying to board an oil rig. But Russia has done so in a drama that constantly surprises. Here are five things to know about the story.
Why were the Greenpeace activists detained?
Russian security forces seized Greenpeace's "Arctic Sunrise" icebreaker near a Gazprom oil-drilling platform in the Pechora Sea on September 19, arresting all 30 activists on board. That was a day after two of the activists tried to scale the offshore Prirazlomnaya drilling platform to protest Moscow's efforts to tap Arctic resources.
On October 2, the Russian authorities formally charged 13 of the Greenpeace activists and a freelance videographer with piracy. The charge carries a large fine and maximum 15-year jail sentence. The other Greenpeace activists are expected to be charged over the coming days.
The activists, all currently detained in Murmansk, include citizens of the United States, Finland, Argentina, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Ukraine, Russia, France, Italy, Turkey, Poland, and Sweden.
Did Russia have the right to arrest them?
Yes, according to the terms of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982. The "Arctic Sunrise" was within Russia's declared exclusive economic zone, which stretches 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from its northern coastline into the Arctic Ocean.
Chris Bellamy, director of the Greenwich Maritime Institute in England and an expert on maritime security, says all countries have the right to maintain exclusive economic zones and police them.
"Inside Russia's exclusive economic zone, the state has the right to exploit the natural resources and to protect those operations," Bellamy explains. "So, if the ship was perceived to be a threat to the operation of the oil platform, then the Russians would argue that they were entitled to protect it by arresting the ship."
Whether the ship posed any danger to the oil platform is another matter. Russia says it did but Greenpeace maintains the ship stayed well outside a 500-meter safety zone around the rig. It also says that the inflatable boats that were used to reach the oil platform could not pose any risk to a structure that is designed to withstand icebergs.
Why is Russia charging the activists with piracy?
The charge makes little sense if one applies the internationally binding definition of piracy, which requires personal gain as a motive.
Marko Pavliha, head of the Maritime and Transport Law Department of the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, says the international terms are quite clear.
"There is a very strict definition of piracy in Article 101 of the convention to the effect that piracy consists of any illegal acts, or violence, or detention, of any act of depredation committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft and directed on the high seas, or also an exclusive economic zone, against another ship or aircraft or against persons or property onboard such ship or aircraft," Pavliha says.
Pavliha notes that as a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Russia is bound by this legal definition so long as the incident took place outside its territorial waters, which extend 12 nautical miles from the coastline. But he notes that if an incident of piracy takes place inside a country's territorial waters, then that country can apply its own national laws to the case.
That could set the stage for a protracted dispute over just where the "Arctic Sunrise" was at the time of its seizure. Greenpeace maintains the ship was in international waters, that is, within Russia's exclusive economic zone but outside its territorial waters.
An additional wrinkle in the case is a statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin. He said on September 25 that "of course, they are not pirates but, formally speaking, they tried to seize an oil platform." Just how prosecutors define seizing an oil platform as piracy remains to be seen.
Why is Russia so sensitive about Arctic drilling?
Russia's oil industry is moving into the Arctic in order to secure new energy sources as its staple fields in the marshes of West Siberia are heavily exploited. Without Arctic drilling, Russia's oil production is projected to decline by about 1 million barrels a day by 2020.
Now, with the arrest of the Greenpeace activists, Moscow is making it clear it is not going to let anything, even something as small as a protest, get in the way of its energy plans.
But Moscow is also sensitive about Arctic drilling because it has staked a claim to a huge part of the Arctic Ocean that brings it into conflict with the United States, Canada, Norway, and Denmark. Every country has the right to oil reserves on its outer continental shelf, but Moscow claims its shelf extends all the way to the North Pole. The other states bordering the Arctic Ocean reject Russia's argument that its continental shelf stretches so far, setting the stage for claim disputes.
The question of who has the right to drill in the Arctic Ocean, and where, is likely to be one of the big foreign-policy issues of the coming years. Other energy-hungry countries, including China, also want a share of the action, though it is uncertain what form that might take.
Why is Greenpeace against Arctic drilling?
Greenpeace and other groups oppose drilling for oil in the Arctic because they want to protect the region's fragile ecosystem. They argue that it is currently impossible to fully clean up potential oil spills and that any increased drilling risks an environmental disaster.
The Prirazlomnaya platform is the first offshore rig in the Arctic. Oil giants ExxonMobil, Eni, and Statoil, along with some other Norwegian firms, plan to drill for oil in Russia's Arctic waters in the coming months.